What being a professional bodybuilder taught me about gaining tenure

An injury forced Laura Rotunno to stop extreme bodybuilding, but the experience taught her how to take risks in her academic career

June 2, 2018
Female bodybuilders
Source: iStock

Squatting, curling, pressing, sprinting and preparing meals with the ideal combination of fats, carbs and proteins dominate hours of female bodybuilders’ lives. Such women also spend hours perfecting posing routines and give a final few more to spray-tanning and hair and make-up styling for competitions. They may be on the competition stage for 15 minutes, showcasing what they worked a year or more to build. Such dedication to building muscles and sculpting bodies is rarely understood, much less appreciated, by anyone but other (female) bodybuilders. I understand these women.

I also understand women and men for whom caffeine and computer screens are constant companions. This group produces conference papers, articles and monographs that, most often, are appreciated by only a cadre of specialists. This group also spends innumerable hours in classrooms and offices. That time combined with the solitary hours spent on “our own work” steals time that we could spend with friends, family or even interesting strangers. Outsiders often deem such work to be as much a “freak show” as they consider female bodybuilding to be.

I double up on the freak. I am an associate professor of English – working towards becoming a full professor – and I am also a competitive female bodybuilder. While each of these “lives” invites imbalance, bodybuilding is helping me to fight some imbalances I’ve developed in academia.

Paradoxically, my move away from suffering-the-pressures-of-tenure-even-after-achieving-it arose when I saw myself taking a similarly pressure-laden approach to bodybuilding, which had also brought me some success. After two years of competing, I had become “pro-qualified”, which meant that I could enter a professional competition in a United States Bodybuilding Federation contest.

Early on 8 October 2013, I went to the gym to do sprints on the treadmill. I warmed up; I pressed the button to raise the speed, and when my left toes hit the treadmill, I felt a shooting pain around my ankle. I’m not one to stop for pain. I stopped. I intended to walk it off. I couldn’t. I changed shoes, drove home and called the orthopaedist. That morning I learned that I merely had an Achilles pull, but that meant that I had to wear one of those fashion-forward grey boots for at least four weeks. At that point, I was planning to compete in eight weeks.

A few days later, I was getting my roots dyed when my stylist told me that I needed to take “emergency” measures to counter the breakage I was experiencing. Although part of the breakage arose because of my many hair bleachings, my dieting was also contributing. Within one week, I had had to admit that while my training was creating a more fit and muscular body, it was also making a more vulnerable one, one that I had to start treating differently if it were to grow any stronger.

Those events alone didn’t lead to a healthier approach to my bodybuilding or to my academic life. I felt great relief when I decided not to compete because of my injury, but I also felt great loss because of that decision.

I then felt guilty and confused because of my relief, worrying that it might indicate that I didn’t want to compete any more. The relief, guilt and confusion echoed the feelings that I had had after receiving tenure and publishing my book. Reading about other women who had entered bodybuilding competitions shook my confidence as well. They admitted to eating disorders and exercise addictions and, in essence, told others not to take up bodybuilding. The thing is, I didn’t want to stop, so I decided that I needed to re-sculpt myself into the not extreme bodybuilder…and academic, while I was at it.

There are a few keys to my relative success in this undertaking, and, perhaps surprisingly, they are not all about moderation.

I was drawn to bodybuilding because of the intense work that it requires and its relatively unusual nature for an academic. I like seeing the surprise when I tell people that I am both tenured and a competitive bodybuilder. There is a rush when doing multiple sets of 200lb+ squats. Seeing the teardrop definition of my quads emerge is invigorating. All that said, increasingly heavy lifting and consistent dieting tax a person physically and emotionally. Moreover, I didn’t have a lifelong sports career, so when I committed to bodybuilding, I was learning new skills and entering foreign territory. In short, I took some significant risks that didn’t promise significant rewards, and certainly no academic ones.

I didn’t always feel so separate from academia when I was in the gym, however, because to progress, I had to engage intellectually in my training. I had to think about form, about, for example, pushing through my heels and keeping my shoulders back as I squatted. My intellect didn’t always help, however. I could often understand an exercise but not make my body execute it correctly. And reading more wasn’t going to help. The result was that I experienced a new type of vulnerability.

I don’t react well when I hit such impasses. There is a plyometric pull-up exercise that continues to elude me and sends me to cursing. Caught in one of those blue streaks, I was struck by its similarity to trying to capture a key argument when writing. That recognition didn’t make me capable of nailing the exercise or unblocking myself the next time I struggled with an argument. It has, however, led me to concede to three intertwined situations: the necessity of repetition, the reality that gains are incremental, and the probability of setbacks in bodybuilding and academia.

Spending 10 months working to build muscle has repaid me with some satisfying physical gains. But now I’ve allowed myself to enter some academic situations in which the gains aren’t at all certain. For example, I have experimented with team-teaching – work that doesn’t guarantee promotion or tenure notice, can add to one’s workload and involves relinquishing control. In the autumn 2015 semester, I team-taught with a biologist. Our course covered genetics and literature, a topic I hadn’t explored, and the majority of novels we dealt with I hadn’t read at the time of agreeing to the course. I didn’t feel as in control in that classroom as I typically do, but the discussions were stimulating. I don’t plan to write about this collaboration, and it didn’t lead to a new research project, yet I will teach with this biologist again, because she and the subject material introduced me to thought-provoking ideas and writings.

In my research, I am now exploring Victorian women involved in higher education and athletics. Obviously that topic holds personal significance, so perhaps I’m still seeking a comfort zone, but this work is moving me to unfamiliar fiction and to critical lenses that I haven’t used extensively. I am not certain that this project will yield the next book, on which my promotion to full professor depends, but it is pressing me to read challenging works and even to ask for direction again.

Writing this article is a departure as well. I’ve never written such a personal piece, and, as I write, I am uncertain about the venue to which to submit. At points, the impulse to delete has been overpowering. I haven’t deleted, however, because I would have liked to have read an article like this soon after I received tenure. I probably would not have been able to take its advice – that is, to seize “tenure freedom” to risk more, to use it to feel vulnerable and thus (perhaps) to learn more – but maybe when I started bodybuilding and indulging a curiosity in some rarely read Victorian novels, I wouldn’t have felt quite so guilty.

Laura Rotunno is associate professor of English and honours programme coordinator at Penn State Altoona.

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Print headline: What professional bodybuilding taught me about academic work-life balance

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